A number of prominent dancers and artistic directors have spoken out in Pointe Magazine on the subject of body image in ballet.
Among them, Maria Kochetkova maintains:
At the end of the day, your height is not what determines if you get a job. It’s all about your dancing.
Stout words from a gutsy dancer who has risen above what others have perceived as her physical limitations. But this is simply not true for most dancers in her mold.
Kochetkova makes unexciting lines in space. This is not because of any shortcomings of technique but because of the proportions of the instrument she was born with. But her compact size makes it easier for her to turn and jump than a taller, lankier dancer – and these things she does brilliantly. (I speak in generalities here: clearly there are some tall, long-limbed ballerinas who jump and turn miraculously.)
Kochetkova also has the advantage of timing: she is at her peak at a time when a number of gifted, short male dancers are also at theirs, and the demand for a gifted, short ballerina whom they can partner is high. Other dancers born with her physique and tenacity are unlikely to get the same breaks that she has gotten.
There is much wisdom in Wendy Whelan’s statement:
I try to remind myself that nobody has a perfect body and no dancer is a perfect dancer. True beauty lies within each of us to create for ourselves the best we can with what we have been given.
Yet even though standards of beauty may be shifting in a healthier direction, even as the notion of what constitutes a beautiful body line evolves with time, and even as sports medicine has advanced to give us better insight into what makes a strong, healthy athletic body, there is a bottom line when it comes to ballet: it’s an art form in which the men have to be able to lift the women.
Anecdotal evidence points to an increase in back injuries among male dancers as the women have become healthier and a little heavier. Male dancers are spending more time in the gym, building strength. Forward-thinking ballet training curricula consider female-male weight ratios when assigning partners, not simply height differences. Men have to be stronger and bigger these days if they are going to have a successful career in ballet. And with the increased popularity of male-male partnering in contemporary ballet, the strength requirement becomes even more imperative.
The concept of putting a dancer on ‘weight probation’ seems outdated and offensive. Yet many professional sports teams have a weight regime. The issue is more explosive in the ballet world because of the scandals around eating disorders and body dysmorphia – problems that used to be swept under the carpet but are more frequently aired now and, to varying degrees, addressed.
When a choreographer or artistic director is reluctant to cast a dancer because of her weight, does this reflect an outmoded, inflexible opinion of what dancers should look like on stage? Or is it a more practical consideration – is it because the role involves a lot of partnering and her weight presents a challenge? The answer is often both.
Whatever the prevailing aesthetic tastes, the incontrovertible fact is that the ideal body image of a ballerina has been sculpted over centuries almost exclusively by men. Even the handful of female choreographers and artistic directors have been influenced by – or have had to battle – standards set before they came along. Thus it’s vital for the survival of ballet to incorporate many more female voices in the programming and creation of new work, and in the revival of old. Arlene Croce wrote that ballet “exists in the interplay between memory and imagination.” The more disparate the sources of imagination, the more vibrant the art form becomes.